EU vets have agreed stricter rules that will limit the movement of live cattle and sheep out of bluetongue restricted areas.

At a meeting of the influential SCOFCAH committee in Brussels on Tuesday (8 April) member states agreed the rule change which will prevent the movement of bluetongue susceptible animals more than 90 days old, unless they have been vaccinated or have natural immunity.

Another condition is that, where animals have been vaccinated, at least 50 days must have passed before they can move out of a zone, to ensure that they are not infective.

This applies to both breeding and slaughter animals, and covers both the protection and surveillance zones until the end of 2008, when it will be reviewed.

The move has been welcomed by farmers in Ireland, north and south, who have been pressing hard for stricter controls. “We currently enjoy bluetongue-free status and that’s the way we want to continue,” said Ulster Farmers Union president Kenneth Sharkey. “This week’s decision in Brussels means import controls can now be tightened.”

Belfast and Dublin imposed their own unilateral bans on female cattle older than 12 months and female sheep older than six months at the start of March. Northern Ireland agriculture minister Michelle Gildernew insisted that this “temporary suspension” would stay in place until the new EU regulation is signed off in Brussels in the next few days.

The UFU has called for the authorities to “interpret the new EU rules to maximum effect”. Their aim is to ban all live imports, including those for direct slaughter – currently running at about 450 cattle and 2700 sheep a week – and any animals that once resided in a bluetongue restricted zone.

But Ms Gildernew has hinted this would be overstepping the mark. “Any inappropriate action would risk the good relations we share with the EU Commission and other member states. Remember, we benefited from those relationships by being allowed to continue to trade internationally when Britain had foot-and-mouth disease.”